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Blue-collar pitching mentality led Phil Fox to star for hometown Pittsburgh

by Cooper Andrews
Thursday, June 27, 2024

Blue-collar pitching mentality led Phil Fox to star for hometown Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh athletes carry a certain ambience with them. They’re usually of the blue-collar, under-the-radar type. They reflect the stereotypical traits of citizens from the region — hardworking folks who possess thick Pittsburghese enunciation and bleed Steelers black and gold. In simpler terms, the city’s athletes are mirror images of a classic “yinzer.”

Phil Fox is no different.

“I’ve grown up in Pittsburgh, my whole family’s from Pittsburgh,” Fox said. “You kind of just live the black and gold lifestyle and then you kind of adopt a little bit of an accent as well.”

He idolized names like Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger as a kid. He was more into the Pirates, though. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte and members of the Bucs’ 2013-14 squads are the ballplayers who caused Fox to fall in love with the sport.

Little did he know he’d eventually join them among the ranks of Pittsburgh’s baseball stars.

Fox, currently a right-handed reliever on Chatham, lived out a childhood dream this past college baseball season by becoming the Pitt Panthers’ mainstay closer. He was almost unhittable. The redshirt sophomore posted a 1.47 ERA and was named an ABCA/Rawlings Third-Team All-American as well as an All-Atlantic Coast Conference Second-Team honoree.

There, Fox exhibited the grit and tenacity that’s carried him throughout his career. It’s what licensed him to defy his 5-foot-10 stature. It’s the mentality that helped him overcome Tommy John surgery. And it’s how he generated the courage to bet on himself, enter the transfer portal, return home and put together an illustrious campaign — which has him primed for Major League Baseball in the near future.

“Phil loves Pittsburgh. He loves the area,” said Pitt baseball head coach Mike Bell. “The opportunity for him to come back home, develop his talents and compete in the ACC, arguably the toughest conference in the country, allowed him to put himself on the map.”

Phil Fox has registered a spotless ERA in the Cape Cod Baseball League through his first two apperances / Photograph by Ella Tovey

Fox has always been immersed in baseball. His father, Phil, was a former center fielder for Catawba College (Salisbury, North Carolina), which helped encourage Fox to follow in his footsteps.

As he grew up, Fox’s family even aided his heavy interest in the sport — albeit in an interesting way. Fox used to simulate pitching in his backyard with Phil as his catcher and his mother, Michele, and sister, Allie, as cheering fans on the porch.

Positivity from Michele and Allie was hard to come by, however. Michele revealed that she and her daughter heckled Fox. They wanted to distract him so he could learn how to throw in a raucous, adverse environment. They screamed at him midway through his windup, occasionally eliciting Fox to tell them to stop their jeers, Michele said.

“We’d tell him, ‘You have to go until you can throw a strike,’” Michele remembers saying.

It may have been a lighthearted act, yet it was a small step toward Fox developing his toughness. He’s never been an imposing figure. He had to learn how to battle despite standing below 6 feet and not weighing more than 150 pounds until his junior year of high school. So, a will to attack at all costs was instilled in Fox’s brain from an early age.

“He’s a bulldog, he’s always been a bulldog,” Phil said of his son. “He’ll go right at you.”

Once Fox arrived at Hempfield Area High School (Pennsylvania), he went under the guidance of head coach Tim Buzzard. He played center field and pitched, with Buzzard saying that he was initially more focused on the outfield. He didn’t have eye-popping velocity, though Buzzard said it was clear he’d improve as he matured.

Buzzard recalled one game Fox threw against North Allegheny — one of the best programs in Pennsylvania’s 6A Class — during his freshman season. He said Fox impressed after coming out of the bullpen and tossing a couple efficient innings, providing a glimpse into his potential.

“I thought, ‘Man, this kid definitely has something,’” Buzzard remembered of his reaction to Fox’s performance. “He was composed enough and confident enough that I knew he could really be something special here if he continued to develop.”

There was a similar belief in Fox from Dave Muraco, Fox’s travel ball coach for Team All American (Trafford, Pennsylvania). Muraco said Fox wasn’t necessarily one of his top pitchers, but the talent was there. He thought Fox would be successful at any position due to his player makeup — someone who’s aggressive and technically sound.

Muraco remembered being in attendance for a state semifinals game where Fox laid out in center field and made a diving catch while colliding face-first into the chain-link fence. For Muraco, the play encapsulated Fox’s pure grit.

“I’ve never seen another player make that catch,” Muraco gushed.

“It just showcased who he was, how hard he plays and how much he cares,” Buzzard said.

Heading into his senior year, Buzzard said Fox started to emphasize pounding the strike zone as a pitcher. He trusted his fastball and sprinkled in a curveball and a slider, with Buzzard saying he could throw both his off-speed pitches for unabating strikes.

The mentality, and skillset, spurred Fox’s transformation into the Spartans’ ace for the 2021 season, helping propel them to a state title matchup against North Allegheny. Buzzard put Fox on the bump with a championship on the line. He faced off versus opposing starter Kyle Demi, who’s now Fox’s teammate at Pitt.

While Hempfield lost, Buzzard was in awe of Fox’s outing. He went into the sixth inning against a potent North Allegheny lineup and kept the game close despite the Spartans being held scoreless.

“He was just fiery, into it, going after guys,” Buzzard said of Fox. “Once he got to the point where he was super confident, you could see that intensity coming out.”

That senior season caused Fox to fully hone in on pitching. But he wasn’t convinced he had a Power Five arm. His fastball sat in the high 80-MPH range when he was an upperclassman, which he said wasn’t bad but wasn’t high-caliber, either.

He could have gone to Pittsburgh out of high school as a walk-on. However, Fox said that wouldn’t have worked out financially. He headed to the Big South instead to pitch for Gardner-Webb.

Fox’s career there didn’t begin according to plan, though.

Amid the state title appearance in 2021, Fox felt a pop in his elbow. He didn’t think much of it at the time. Still, he knew he needed to get it checked out. Fox received a PRP stem cell growth injection in his right arm instead of undergoing surgery. He rehabbed until October. When he arrived at Gardner-Webb and threw a bullpen session, Fox said “everything” hurt each time he fired a pitch.

“I was talking to a trainer about it and they were like, ‘All right, let's go to the doctors in Charlotte,’” Fox said. “And we went and sure enough, I had a fully torn UCL.”

Fox couldn’t avoid surgery any longer. He got Tommy John surgery within the next two days. For the next six months, he couldn’t pick up a baseball. He even said the injury led him to be separated from his team due to COVID-era roster limits being in effect at the time.

“I basically wasn't even on the roster at all,” Fox said. “I really couldn't do anything with the team. Lifting-wise, I couldn't do anything. I could only be at practice and I couldn't be in the dugout. I had to be in the press box doing charts and whatnot.”

So, Fox did what anyone from Pittsburgh would do: he put his head down and got to work.

His main goal while rehabbing was stacking body mass. Fox entered Gardner-Webb at 165 pounds. Once he was cleared to work out once again, he said he gained roughly 20-to-25 pounds of muscle. The added strength resulted in improved, more balanced mechanics and a dramatic increase in velocity.

“I was throwing harder than I ever was before,” Fox said, as his fastball speed approached the mid 90s.

In the 2023 campaign, Fox established himself as Gardner-Webb’s top closer. He tallied 34 strikeouts in 20 appearances, earning a spot on the Big South All-Freshman Team. Fox credited the success to his blue-collar pitching style. He said he stopped treating outings like it was a showcase where pumping fastballs in the high-90s was all that mattered. Rather, Fox relentlessly located his pitches in the strike zone and fooled hitters with his movement.

Fox decided to hit the transfer portal following his lone season with Gardner-Webb. Though, it was a stressful ordeal for him.

“Nobody really wants to enter the portal,” Fox said. “But, I was ready to come home.”

Phil Fox entered Chatham coming off of a stellar season with Pitt where he totaled a 1.47 ERA and walked just three batters / Photograph by Ella Tovey
Luckily for Fox, Bell was one of the first people to call him. It was a no-brainer. He went on a few other visits, yet Pitt was the place he yearned to be at. Fox ultimately transferred to the Panthers, which prompted a celebration for the whole Fox family.

“It was indescribable for me,” Phil said. “For my son to be able to play there has just been amazing.”

Michele said she was driven to tears every time Fox stepped on the mound. And her son provided plenty of reasons to shed joyous waterworks.

Fox registered a scintillating sub-1.50 ERA. He struck out 45 batters. He held opponents to a measly .198 clip at the dish. He garnered eight saves. The most gaudy stat of them all? Fox only walked three hitters — filling up the zone like never before.

Bell said that in addition to Fox’s attacking mentality, his lower release spot paired with a high and vertical fastball baffles hitters. The head coach said Fox’s heater elicits some of the ugliest swings he’s ever seen. It doesn’t matter that he’s short. It doesn’t matter that he had Tommy John. Fox has learned to place an unwavering amount of trust in his game.

It’s led Bell to believe he’s destined for the highest level.

“I really think his name is going to get called in the middle of July with the (MLB) draft,” Bell said of Fox. “And we're just ecstatic for him because he's earned everything that he's going to receive.”

Until Fox’s next move, one moment from his Pitt career will repeatedly play in his head. It came on May 10 at Pittsburgh’s Charles L. Cost Field for a Friday-night showdown between the Panthers and then-No. 8 Florida State.

Up 1-0 heading into the eighth, Bell called Fox from the bullpen for a long save opportunity. Fox did exactly what he does the best. He had faith in his stuff, painted the strike zone and made guys miss. FSU looked lost versus Fox. He faced the minimum and racked up four strikeouts en route to securing the save — and a major upset victory for the Panthers.

Fox said because of the Pittsburgh cold, large crowds are hard to come by. But this time, the stands were filled to the brim, creating what Fox called the most electric atmosphere he’s ever pitched in.

The adrenaline rush amid pandemonium from the win caused Fox to black out. All he remembers is being greeted by his teammates hugging and high-fiving him around the locker room. He said he individually approached Ryan Andrade, who Fox came in relief for. Both he and Andrade were transfers, and Fox made sure they both basked in the full-circle moment.

“We just did that,” Fox recalls telling Andrande. “We belong here.”

That sense of belonging was even more palpable toward Fox. There he was, back in the city he was raised in, yet no longer a fan. This time, he was the hero — à la the Pittsburgh legends who inspired him.